Sunday 25 August 2019

John Downing: 'As Ireland's new MEPs start work, it's vital they can put differences aside and wear the green jersey'

Fianna Fail's Barry Andrews
Fianna Fail's Barry Andrews
John Downing

John Downing

It used to be derisively called "the mother-in-law of all parliaments" and it was for a very long time the poor relation in the EU's power games. For 30 years, it was deliberately called an assembly and was only given the right to use the term parliament in 1986.

But the European Parliament has travelled a long road and has been gaining in power and influence since the landmark Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which also created the EU single currency. Ireland has just 11 out of the current crop of MEPs but history has told us that they can wield a good deal of influence in the system by deft work in the key committees.

In the last term people like Mairead McGuinness and Seán Kelly packed a big punch, helping influence their own European People's Party (EPP), also popularly called the Christian Democrats, to which all the key Brexit EU playmakers belonged. These included people like commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, council president Donald Tusk and chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

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Tomorrow, Ireland's European XI will formally begin their five-year terms at a gala parliament opening in the French city of Strasbourg, just over the River Rhine from Germany. The two MEPs left sitting on the Brexit subs bench, Barry Andrews of Fianna Fáil and Deirdre Clune of Fine Gael, must wait longer. But they may know a little more about what, if any, special status they might be granted by their colleagues before they can take their seats after the UK leaves the EU.

Ireland's 11 are likely to be scattered across three of the four key groups. Fine Gael's members are still with the EPP. Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher will be with the newly created 'Renew Europe', up to recently popularly known as the Liberals, and including French President Emmanuel Macron's party.

Grace O'Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe will sit with the Green grouping. Independents Clare Daly and Mick Wallace are expected to join Luke 'Ming' Flanagan in the Confederal Group of United Left, known by the acronym GUE-NGL.

This is the grouping to which Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy also belongs. The only important group from which Ireland is absent is the Socialists, to which Labour is affiliated.

MEPs returning to the European Parliament will find a changed political landscape. Since direct elections were first held in 1979, the parliament has been mostly dominated by a grand alliance centre-left between the EPP and Socialists.

In this incoming parliament the 'big two' no longer have the numbers. The EPP, while still the largest, is on 182 MEPs, and the Socialists are on 151. That combined total of 333 MEPs is a good bit short of the required overall majority in the 751-seat parliament.

So, it is assumed that there will be a more broad coalition built with the EPP and Socialists being joined by the Liberals' 108 MEPs and the Greens with 75.

This will take time to work out in practice. At the time of writing there is, for example, no word on how the new parliament president will be chosen in a vote scheduled for next Wednesday. The decision dovetails with the parliament's efforts to influence who will be the next head of the policy-guiding commission in place of President Juncker.

Choosing a president and other "housekeeping tasks", like electing the vice-presidents, the so-called 'quasters' who deal with MEP privileges, and the apportioning of seats on the 20 committees will dominate this first week's work.

There are still some hangovers from the parliament's 'poor relation' status. One is the split of sitting venues between Strasbourg and Brussels, with even some staff being based in between these two cities in Luxembourg.

MEPs have many times tried to put the kibosh on the once-monthly trips from Brussels, where the bulk of the work is done, to Strasbourg. Each month the MEPs' files and records are loaded into trucks in the EU capital and taken on the four-hour drive to the French city.

The distractions and inconvenience are minimised by specially designed trunks and portable filing cabinets, but it still takes a toll on the politicians and back-up staff.

Another hangover issue, which has only relatively recently been dealt with, is the one of salary. When Ireland joined the then-EEC in 1973, the Taoiseach of the time, Jack Lynch, baulked at the suggestion that MEPs' pay be linked to EU rates. That would have meant an Irish MEP being paid more than the Taoiseach.

So for many years the MEPs were paid the salary of a member of parliament in their country of origin from the national exchequer. This left alarming pay disparities which by 2006 meant the best paid Italian MEPs were grossing €10,000 per month, while the lowest paid from Bulgaria got less than €1,000 per month. The pay gap was in part bridged by generous expenses which created other problems.

Eventually, the EU member governments did agree a new statute for MEPs which took effect at the start of a new parliament term in 2009. It fixed pay at 38.5pc of the salary of an EU judge which is now €8,800 per month, and after preferential EU tax rates nets something like €6,800 per month in take-home pay.

So, it is a well-paid job with a generous pension at 3.5pc of salary per year of service up to a ceiling of 70pc of salary and generous severance pay arrangements.

But the MEPs' expenses regime does attract controversy on a regular basis.

The main focus is on the unvouched expenses for MEPs worth €4,416 a month to each of them, from the General Expenditure Allowance, which is intended for rent for offices in their constituencies and other items like stationery - at a total cost to taxpayers of €40m a year.

The European Parliament has refused to publish details of this on grounds that it would breach MEPs' privacy. That decision was upheld by the European Court in September 2018.

Many MEPs do publish details and in the case of most Irish representatives their offices are visible to constituents.

However, it remains a strange situation for an institution which, among other roles, is a watchdog for the European citizens' taxes.

Another item of interest will be how the new Irish group of MEPs can work together on Irish interests.

Addressing the four outgoing TDs in the Dáil last week, Leas-Cheann Comhairle Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher, himself a distinguished former MEP, urged them to collaborate for Ireland.

"I have no doubt that despite carrying different flags, from the left and the right, the four departing deputies will all represent Ireland and wear the Irish jersey while in Brussels," Mr Gallagher said.

We shall see.

Just before that, new MEP Mick Wallace was reflecting on how he "took lumps" out of his now former Dáil colleagues over the years.

Will he and his colleague Clare Daly wear the green jersey?

Irish Independent

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